Friday, April 22, 2005

Swept Away

Transferring at Concorde the other night, I scuffed along the other late-night riders from the Twelve to the One. A group of gypsy children were among us, two of them similarly clad in jean jackets that boasted the logo of an imaginary football team across the back. Showing off for the girl of the group, who giggled and jogged along beside them, they played subway soccer, substituting the ball with a ratty version of the day’s 20 Minutes.

Hearing them coming, I veered right. One of the boys slammed into my side with his elbow. I rubbed my injured love handle and watched them make their way down the tunnel. Soon, they picked up the newspaper and threw it into the air. Folded and aerodynamic, it slammed into the wall, narrowly missing a man walking just in front of me.

“Pardon!” They shouted. The man shrugged.

A few meters later, we came upon a limping cleaning man, clothed in a bright blue work suit. He scuttled along with his broom and pan, ushering used ticket stubs and candy wrappers away from the sides of the corridor.

As the children approached, one of them broke free of the group and grabbed the man’s broom from his hand. They took off running. The Limping Cleaner shouted, “Oh! La!” and started off after them, albeit slowly and unevenly.

The man who’d narrowly missed having his eye poked out by a flying newspaper and I looked at each other. I let go of my injured love handle; we took off running after the kids. Chased them all the way down the hall and onto the platform of the One. I checked the lighted sign. Sven minutes ‘til the next train—there was still time. We zigged and zagged through the platform, toward the Sortie, up the stairs and through the automatic exit doors. We were soon joined by the Security Guards. The kids ran up the stairs to the outside, and the broom came tumbling down the stairs after them.

The man and I slowed down just before the exit. One of the guards retrieved the broom from the bottom of the steps. The other two dashed out. A few seconds later, the Limping Cleaner caught up to us. He scolded the Security Guards: “You call this security?! Those kids could’ve killed me!” When they didn’t listen, he approached the ticket window, shouting to the woman behind the counter that the security in the metro was insufficient. He might as well quit, he said, it was such a dangerous job.

The man and I looked at each other, breathing heavily. I checked my watch. Two minutes. We jogged back down the stairs and boarded the train, never speaking.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Plastic Girl and Gimp Man

I’m riding home after class with Séverine. Sitting next to her is a fine specimen of what I call the Plastic Girl. She got on at Etoile – station whose name means “star”. White waist-length coat, white mp3 player, white pointy-toed pumps. Pink T-shirt with the word “Flirt” embossed with sequins. Vacuum-packed jeans, requisite oversize hoop earrings, and blonde-streaked hair. Plastic Girl attaches the mp3 system to her ears – or what’s left of them, sagging under the weight of aforementioned hoops – to barricade herself from the plebian surroundings. These include: myself (unshowered, unshaved, unslept), Séverine, and the man sitting to my right – Gimp Man. Gimp Man has frizzy hair, a crutch, and a nervous twitch. When I lean forward to better catch Séverine’s words, my elbow brushes against his, setting off further twitching.

Sound system safely in place, Plastic Girl can proceed with makeup operations, pulling out a compact and quickly checking mascara (not running), powder (still caked on, no problem), lipliner and gloss (appropriately lurid). Plastic Girl is evidently so fabulous that she is allowed to do her makeup in public. By doing so, she is not being tactless, she is simply marking her territory.

Mere mortals might think this is the metro – in reality it is her boudoir. A hushed awe descends upon the car, as we realize that Plastic Girl is really a star. Of course! I should have realized earlier. All hail the Plastic Queen.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Fourteen Tunnel

The Fourteen is the only line with no drivers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Crazy Person #125

Westbound on the Two, four o’clock
Sex: Male
Age: 52?

He got on the Two at Courcelles, wearing a red flannel shirt and jeans. As he sat down he issued a grave “bonjour” to his immediate neighbors. Accessories: pipe (dangling from mouth but not lit), crutch, and a shopping caddy, from which protruded the tube of a vacuum cleaner. Does he collect vacuum tubes? Work as a house cleaner and prefers to use his own equipment? (Difficult to imagine with that crutch, come to think of it.) Had he just bought a vacuum cleaner? Gotten it as a gift? Does he just cart it around? We’ll never know.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Faithful readers, I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I too was a JYA. It’s true; I know them so well because I once was among them. Granted, I avoided stretchy white tops and kept my skin under cover. In fact, I loathed JYAs as a JYA. They used to sit in the JYA office and squeal about Gwenyth Paltrow and lamented the serious lack of J. Crew in this city. I mean where do I get my pink capris? But this is all beside the point.

The point is this: I once was a much less savvy rider than the battle-scarred commuter I am today.

I’d heard all the warnings. Pickpockets? Rampant. Be vigilant! Close those sacks!

But I had also noticed that the only people fearfully clutching their bags to their chests were tourists. I wasn't a tourist, I lived there, right? So I’d taken to keeping my backpack (a French brand, bien sur) on one shoulder and covering the pouch with my arm.

But the very first day I let down my guard, leaving my backpack on, I met a pickpocket ring.

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about some man stealthily reaching into your pocket while you read your novel in your seat. Oh, no. This was nothing of the sort; this was a well-orchestrated event. I suspected nothing until the very end.

It was about five o’clock on a Friday afternoon--prime time metro mania. The quai was packed with commuters, no doubt on their way to a pleasant apéro after a hard week’s work.

I prepared to board the train at Montparnasse, similar to Chatelet in size and squalor. The train pulled up; I approached the door. Passengers disembarked; I waited patiently. Then, when the crowd began to push into the car, I found myself at a standstill. Others boarded, but the men around me didn’t move to get on the train. I was blocked from the front and on both sides. I tried to get around them, but they wouldn't budge.

It was then that I felt the fourth man’s hands in my backpack. Rummaging. How long had this been going on? I swiveled around and grabbed my bag. The men started to move away down the hall. I fished through the front pocket. Wallet, check. Metro pass, check. Phone? Phone?! Decidedly not there.

Amazing myself only in hindsight, I took off after them down the hall. I shouted, “Give me back my cell phone!”

To my great surprise, they stopped to argue with me. “We don’t have your phone, you crazy bitch.” “Yes you do--I saw you take it!” This wasn’t exactly the truth, but I was doing everything I could just to keep up my courage and my French.

Our stop-and-go routine continued as I chased them down the halls, shouting the same tired phrase, “Give me back my cell phone!” We passed countless passengers. No one did more than blink at me in my plight.

Finally, nearing the heart of the station where the tickets and the security office were located, they stopped again.

“What?! You want a phone?! This is the only phone I have! You want mine?!” One of the men showed me a phone. It wasn’t mine.

“No, I want my phone, of me.”

He reached into his pocket and threw it my way. It crashed by my feet. They took off, insulting me along the way. I collected my phone and, the adrenaline leaving my system, shook hard for the next few minutes as I made my way back to the quai to take the train home.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sunday on the Four